Sunday, October 14, 2012

John A. Swanson’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” c.1970 screen print collage

John August Swanson from Los Angeles was a guest artist at Dordt College on Wednesday and Thursday October 10–11. John spent time discussing his work with students and staff. In this photograph Swanson talks about one of his earliest works “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” which is a screen printed collage from c.1970. This particular print on display is from the collection of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota. By the way, John is wearing the “Fear Is The Opposite Of Faith” T-shirt from Sojourners. 

It was a great privilege to have John on campus for a couple of days.

Much of Swanson’s body of work as well as his early prints are lyrical expressions advocating fairness, justice, and equality. As John states:

When I was starting my work as an artist from 1968 to 1975, I was influenced by political ideas and movements, and the songs and speeches of the 1960s and 70s. I created a series of works similar to newspapers—collages of lettering, artwork, and photos, an “exploding newspaper.
Using my knowledge of photography, and working in darkrooms, I overexposed photographs to simplify them, and create stark solarized images, which I felt complimented the lettering [that I drew by hand or carved from rubber erasers]. I combined the lettering, photos and rubberstamp images with texts that were meaningful to me: the words of the writer, James Agee; the poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti; and the labor leader, Cèsar Chávez; as well as song lyrics.
The title of the print comes from classic literature, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The publication was a collaboration between writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans. The book chronicles the lives of three sharecropper tenant families in Alabama in 1936, during the Great Depression.

For Swanson’s poster it’s very striking how he mixes and assembles typographic styles and images and portrays the book title followed by the passage, which is reproduced below in boldface. Agee, writing on a summer night, prefaced the words found in the poster saying:
A man and a woman are drawn together upon a bed and there is a child and there are children: … 
Moreover, these flexions are taking place every where, like a simultaneous motion of all the waves of the water of the world: and these are the classic patterns, and this is the weaving, of human living: of whose fabric each individual is a part: and of all parts of this fabric let this be borne in mind: 
Each is intimately connected with the bottom and extremest reach of time: Each is composed of substances identical with the substance of all that surrounds him, both the common objects of his disregard, and the hot centers of stars:  
All that each person is, and experiences, and shall never experience, in body and in mind, all these things are differing expressions of himself and of one root, and are identical: and not one of these things nor one of these persons is ever quite to be duplicated, nor replaced, nor has it ever quite had precedent: but each is a new and incommunicably tender life, wounded in every breath, and almost as hardly killed as easily wounded: sustaining, for a while, without defense, the enormous assaults of the universe: 
So that how it can be that a stone, a plant, a star, can take on the burden of being; and how it is that a child can take on the burden of breathing; and how through so long a continuation and cumulation of the burden of each moment one on another, does any creature bear to exist, and not break utterly to fragments of nothing: these are matters too dreadful and fortitudes too gigantic to meditate long and not forever to worship. (1)
  1. Agee, James, and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. New York: Ballantine Books, 1960 / Fourth Printing 1972. 53-54. Print.

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